Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review of Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches

Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches

My review of Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches by Gloria J. Leckie and John Buschman (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2009).
Published in New Library World, 111(1/2), 2010.

In Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches, editors Gloria J. Leckie, Professor of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, and John E. Buschman, Associate University Librarian, Georgetown University, urge librarianship to advance critical scholarship about technology. Since the first edition's publication 15 years ago, technology, critical analysis, and the understanding of the socio-cultural and economic issues of information technology have evolved considerably. This new edition remedies technology's zealous implementation, which imperils librarianship and libraries.

The book correlates germane critical approaches: capital control of technology; rationalization, control, and monitoring; the information revolution as ideology; feminist critiques of technology; technological utopianism; and technology, politics, and the public sphere. The first section, “Foundations,” imparts metalevel critical analysis of technology, written by scholars in communications, education, and related fields. The second part, “Applications,” authored by academic librarians and information science professors, examines the relationship between technology and libraries from macrolevels and microlevels.

The editors ask, “Why new critical approaches now?” (p. 2). In their introductory essay, they write, “the juggernaut of technology has in no way been halted,” and a critical approach is required “in the face of the social and economic juggernaut that IT is – both in society and in libraries” (p. 2; p. 21). Further, “the grounds for critique need renewing, the reasons for critique need reminding, and alternative perspectives on our library technological juggernauts need to be renewed” (p. 3). “Juggernaut” is an illuminating choice, derived from the Sanskrit Jagannāth, an idol of Krishna drawn on a giant cart under whose inexorable wheels devotees threw themselves.

Critical theory, in this context, is equally negative, arising from the Frankfort School, and subsequently, Habermas. In “Critical theory of technology: an overview,” Andrew Feenberg writes that “Technology is a two-sided phenomenon: on the one hand the operator, on the other the object” so that technical action is an exercise of power (p. 32). Using Marxian analysis and instrumentalization theory, the belief that technology must be analyzed at two levels: the original functional relation to reality and design and implementation, Feenberg demonstrates how technology is simplified and deworlded, yet incorporated as if it was a natural element.

Roma Harris, in “‘Their little bit of ground slowly squashed into nothing’: technology, gender, and the vanishing librarian,” believes that librarians are unrecognized for their complex work and their application of sophisticated
technologies because they are traditionally female. She writes, “In view of the heightened importance now attached to the term information, public uncertainty about the value of librarians' work seems ironic given that librarianship is the original information profession” (p. 165). She implores the reclamation of librarianship's rightful position as the leader of the information sector.

With essays ranging from open source software, information retrieval, surveillance, and digital preservation to autonomous Marxism and techno-capital, literacies and education, and library-state relations, Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches will interest librarians, as well as those in government, industry, research, and education. Unless librarians contribute to the intellectual debate about information technology, society will be jeopardized. The question remains, will librarianship hurl itself under technology's wheels to be crushed to oblivion?